Management v Dissent

This is a collection of notes and other materials supporting a workshop for the 2011 Grassroots Radio Coalition Conference entitled "Management vs Dissent -- a Radio Classic!"

If you are considering taking this workshop, please do not read too much first. At least avoid the back stories.

A Tale of Two Frames

This tale of two frames revolves around opposing views of how an organization is supposed to function. Marshall Rosenberg would call these "strategies". Fisher and Ury, authors of "Getting to Yes" might call them "positions". Some communication models call them "filters" (in our head, not in circuits!). George Lakoff might call them metaphors or the now well-worn term "frames".

triangle One of these frames matches Lakoff's "conservative" (quibble about his terms elsewhere) generalization or frame, which is generally authoritarian, following from what he calls the "strict-father family". This produces the time-tested, traditional (please excuse the insult to traditional indigenous peoples) hierarchy of authority, often pyramidal (depicted as a triangle) which is also the shape of most organizations, including most radio stations.

triangle The other organizational view is consistent with Lakoff's "liberal" frame, mirroring what he calls the "nururant-parent famliy". It involves egalitarianism, fairness, dignity for all, and is found in many groups who practice consensus, from Quakers to anarcha-feminists, co-ops, collectives, and informally in many peer groups (siblings, team members) and indigenous groups. It is arguably the view consistent with actual functioning pluralistic democracy as we imagine we might have in the US. A circle depicts the equality, as seen literally in the seating pattern of egalitarian groups, and carefully-chosen round international negotiation tables.

Before continuing, it is important to note that these frames are extremes, and in actual life, both individuals and organizations often fall somewhere in between, and even choose different models for different tasks or groups within a single organization. It is also important to realize that values are stronger than organizational structure, for example some pyramidal organizations operate democratically (often called inverted pyramids) despite their structure, and some "flat" organizations operate in an authoritarian fahion despite their structure.

Problems occur when different members of a single organization are exhibiting and expecting behavior from different frames. The normal assumptions and behaviors of each frame are toxic to the other, sometimes engendering feelings of danger! The table below shows a few hasty examples of good intentions received badly through the lenses of the other frame.

This workshop will attempt to show how well-meaning people (this is not to discount the very real presence of sociopathology in some individuals) can fall to either side of the divide by just doing what they think is genuinely best for the organization. The humility thereby learned is the first step for re-humanizing the "other" side and realizing their motives are not as horribly irrational as they often seem to be. That irrationality clouds everyone's judgment, making it nearly impossible to resolve disputes or even figure out what's really behind them.

Only two basic groups in active conflict are depicted, but in reality there are usually many other people involved to varying levels, and their responses are going to vary quite a bit. Depending on which glasses they wear -- which organizational frame they are expecting -- they will naturally understand and affirm one "side" (even against their own interests) and usually not the other side -- producing the polarized factions often observed. To choose an example, people at the lowest levels of the organization who are in the authoritarian mindset will affirm their authoritarian management even while that management may be infringing their rights. Brian Martin's writing about whistle blowers further illuminates some of the complexities of the "bystanders", which among other things usually involve people of good principles turning a blind eye to injustice. If these last two points seem familiar, they touch on aspects of citizen behavior common in the latest Bush era. We will study the conflict we enter during this workshop, and informed by a model of conflict, begin to unravel it with a few different methods.

In the end, an irreconcilable difference may still exist. If the decision is to fight, nonviolent strategy has a lot of advantages for convincing or coercing the other side to be more participatory, while its means and organization are egalitarian so the campaign itself is training and practice for that future.

Traditional AuthorityEgalitarian/Consultative
Situation: management sharing a decision
Members ask logistical clarifying questions to effectively implement the decision Members ask questions to understand rationale, measure against mission, express concerns, and possibly co-create something better.
Asking management questions about decisions in private
Purpose: manager gets member "on board" with decision. Convincing through fallacy, seduction, or threat is allowed. Member's questions not to be answered unless the answer gets them "on board". Member seeks to understand manager's proposal, how it flows from and is related to common purpose (mission), and may raise concerns which are expected to be addressed, possibly resulting in a proposal modification.
Asking management questions about decisions in public
Threat to authority. Not being a team player. Management must re-establish authority or lose face and power. Seek to understand proposal and assess how it matches the common purpose (mission), raising concerns about mismatches, propose possible modifications to address mismatches. Proposal will NOT go forward while significant unaddressed concerns persist.
Discussing and critiquing management decisions and edicts among members
Polarizing the organization. Threat to authority. Mutiny. Disrespectful to avoid using proper channels. Benefitting from diversity's wisdom. Safeguarding against decisions counter to mission. Combatting marginalization.
Failing to produce the membership list when requested by a member
Protection. Protecting members from harassment. Securing lines of authority and communication. Squashing divisiveness and pain. Possibly saving face. Censorship. Free speech rights violation. Legal violation. Trying to avoid responsibility to answer relevent questions.

Conflict, a Model

We know when there's conflict? But how? We observe a behavior and we get a feeling, and if it's one of the right sorts of feelings, we "sense conflict". Breaking it down a bit more, we:

  1. observe a behavior
  2. interpret it
  3. compare it to our needs
    • meets our needs -> ok
    • threatens our needs -> feels like conflict

And how do we produce a behavior?

  1. develop an intention to meet some need(s)
  2. select (consciously and not) a strategy
  3. enact a behavior consistent with the strategy

For this workshop, and for a lot of communication and conflict, item #2 is where the trouble often occurs. In box #2 are life experiences, metaphors, frames (Lakoff), filters, strategies (Rosenberg), world views, and much more. For the purposes of the workshop, I'll call box #2 our glasses.

How to Get Out of the Predicament

If your group seems to be gripped by the struggle of "the authoritarians" versus "the egalitarians", here are some things to consider trying. Also be sure to read Brian Martin's work on whistleblowers because the symptoms seem to be similar, and they are uglier than you think.

  1. form another organization from the people who agree on the organizational model (not usually practical in radio)
  2. negotiate the needs behind the conflicting strategies and behaviors using principles of mediation (or a mediator) or "Getting to Yes" (Fisher and Ury)
  3. take action to activate the frame, in other members of your organization, that you want expressed, and link it to the organization. also take steps to prevent activation of the opposite frame. see George Lakoff for more
  4. start a very innocuous discussion or reading group to help people learn about and eventually share and activate the organizational model you want
  5. if they are willing, get good training for at least the board in the preferred model
  6. mount a campaign for the organization to adopt the model you prefer, perhaps following the work of nonviolent strategy experts like Gene Sharp
  7. lobby for an overt and clear organizational model decision by power holders which can be shared with new people, and let existing people make an informed decision whether to stay, or possibly fight
  8. build and use parallel communication, critique, solidarity, and education networks -- not controlled by the station -- before they are needed
  9. read and adopt the "window shade" advice from the book "Grassroots and NonProfit Leadership"

Intro to Role Play

This workshop involves two primary groups loosely called management and dissenters. Management is prepared by reading ONLY the Role: Director, Back Story (and the manager back story when I complete it, but it is substantially similar). Dissenters read ONLY the Role: Active Volunteer-Member, Back Story. A "station meeting" is initiated where both groups are present, and the chosen manager reads (or ad-libs) from the meeting script Role Play 1 - Manager's Report at Station Meeting. During the meeting, conflict is sure to erupt. The workshop facilitator halts the meeting periodically to solicit feelings and understandings from the participants, and other activities intended to foster understanding.

How it Works

The conflict is programmed through the different back stories. On the surface, the back stories resemble difficult situations familiar to community radio people. Some of the information differs between stories, and they emphasize different definitions of the key radio concept of "service". Some parts are intended to feel "over the top" both to enable humor, and divert attention and critical thinking from the other elements. This level of the back stories provides the concrete fodder for conflict.

At a deeper level, the back stories are written to activate different frames, based loosely on Lakeof's work -- authoritarian/conservative for management versus cooperative/liberal for dissenters. Management's story is riddled with fear and scarcity and an understated need for control in case the fear and scarcity isn't quite enough. Dissenter's story involves compassion, nurturing, equality, and fairness. By activating the opposing frames, this level of the back stories is intended to magnify the conflict emotionally, making possible experiential learning about the often-hidden toxin in such disputes.

random notes I used

Role Play 1 - Manager's Report at Station Meeting


As some of you may have heard, I have prohibited Pat from being on the air until we can sort some things out. I know you'd probably like more details, but we'd like to respect confidentiality regarding Pat the same as if Pat were an employee. I can say that Pat did something which endangered WAKD and I took protective action with the board's blessing.


Counterspin and Mainstreet Headlines

As you know, there's a proposal to put Mainstreet Headlines, a new locally-produced show, in the slot where Counterspin is now heard. Unfortunately the e-mail discussions are becoming polarizing and harrassing, so I am requesting that the topic not be discussed on e-mail until further notice.

Although the board usually stays away from programming decisions, they've decided we need a different process for this one, so at this meeting we are going to produce a recommendation from those of us present. For those who may have missed it, Mainstreet Headlines is a half-hour fast-paced news headline show, with headlines read by several different voices, and sourced from AP, Reuters, and well-known regional and local newspapers, including our alternative weekly paper. The producers tested the show at one of the local supermarkets by sharing two-minute segments of Counterspin and Mainstreet Headlines with 100 people. A healthy majority said they'd be more likely to stay tuned in if they heard Mainstreet Headlines, and to become a member of the station.

Before we get started working on a recommendation, are there any questions?

Role: Active Volunteer-Member, Back Story

Non-commercial radio station WAKD is incorporated as a membership nonprofit. It is overseen by a Board of Directors which selects and supervises a General Manager. The bulk of station tasks are accomplished by Volunteer-Members.

Mission: At WAKD we cooperate to provide service to our community through alternative programming.

I have been an active volunteer at WAKD for several years. In that time I've answered phones, swept floors, served on committees, and eventually became a part of one of our local shows.

Part of my story is that people I dearly care about have been victims of sexual assault so I got involved to try to help. My community service includes shifts at the soup kitchen and on the crisis hotline. Our groups try very hard to nurture everyone involved, and involve the affected people as responsible equals too. We know that we must work hard to value everyone equally, because the unequal valuing in the "real world" is what allows these problems to continue. We use consensus and take diversity education seriously.

This is why I came to WAKD:
  1. I saw "cooperate" in WAKD's mission, and then learned it is a membership nonprofit, which means members have rights just like democratic citizens are supposed to have.
  2. I learned that the "alternative" in WAKD's mission means carrying programs like Counterspin. I think it is very difficult for most people, especially oppressed people, myself included, to make sense of the systems around them which help oppress them. I've seen Counterspin and other shows really help people pierce this veil and begin to step into their power and dignity.
  3. I am also involved in providing other types of community service, so "service" in WAKD's mission perfect for me.

The people I usually work with at WAKD are really great. We watch out for each other, help each other grow share responsibilities sometimes. We keep ourselves and each other accountable to our common mission. How? Sometimes it takes us a while just figure out what the mission means in a certain situation, and since none of us has a monopoly on wisdom, we hash it out. Sometimes it means calling out someone, which we do with compassion and with an interest to that person's dignity, after all it could be us! But we take our responsibility for mutual accountability seriously. The result is always better than any of us would do on our own. I'd say we really care about each other as people AND as members of the team which makes our radio great.

We have a manager of course, and we see them as just like us except with some different duties appropriate to their role.

Recently the manager prohibited DJ Pat from being on the air due to profanity. I didn't hear the show myself, but I know there are mistakes. I usually support what Pat has to say even though I think it's a little extreme sometimes, but it is right in line with our duty to challenge ourselves around here when making important decisions. I'm not sure how I feel about Pat's removal. I think it might be a violation of our graduated discipline policy, but on the other hand, we really can't afford a FCC fine right now. I would feel better about it if we had some honest open discussion.

The other thing stirring up trouble lately is a new show proposal. It seems like the manager and board are pretty interested in replacing Counterspin with Mainstreet Headlines. I am worried that the replacement would reduce our community service and alternative-ness. Anyway people are talking a lot about it on the volunteer email list -- trying to look at all the angles of how it does or doesn't help us meet our mission. I think this is exactly the right conversation we need to apply all our collective wisdom and diversity to the question, but there are rumors that management may start censoring the mailing list, which is maybe the worst thing a cooperative organization could do!

Role: Bystander Listener-Member, Back Story

Role: Director, Back Story

Non-commercial radio station WAKD is incorporated as a membership nonprofit. It is overseen by a Board of Directors which selects and supervises a General Manager. The bulk of station tasks are accomplished by Volunteer-Members.

Mission: At WAKD we cooperate to provide service to our community through alternative programming.

I heard a really great show on WAKD several years ago so I started volunteering. At first I was answering telephones and helping around the office. After a while I joined the Marketing and Outreach committee and then got trained to be one of the DJs of the show which brought me here in the first place! After serving briefly on the Strategic Planning Committee I was nominated by my peers to join the Board of Directors, and the members voted me into this spot of considerable responsibility two years ago.

My first exposure to board business was a bit frightening! I had never been in touch with the financial side of things before even though I have some business finance experience, and sometimes it is pretty stressful. We were not going to be able to pay our bills before the last pledge drive, so one of the other directors put up their home as collateral on a short-term loan! After the drive we repaid the loan, but I was nervous.

I also learned a lot about accountability, mostly to the FCC and IRS. The board is responsible for making sure this limited resource, our frequency, which is the property of the people, is used the best way possible. So that means making the people's property benefit as many people as possible, and that means we meet our service obligations to the FCC by having as many listeners as we can. We've also started tracking our listener service numbers because we hope one day to qualify for CPB grants, and they make a big deal about service.

Either the FCC or the IRS can hurt us if they think we are failing in our obligations. I get nervous whenever I hear underwriting announcements or political talk because the regulations are so complicated. But strangely enough, it was one of the simplest regs which got us into trouble.

One morning last week we had an anonymous profanity complaint just hours after DJ Pat's midnight music show. It was almost like someone was just waiting for us to screw up, and we are worried that we in the sights of one of the Christian Radio syndicates! Anyway the tape was conclusive, and our manager prohibited Pat from being on the air. But that may not be the end of that story.

Pat is one of the Midnight Music DJs who are all friends and constantly question "the system", including FCC rules. We are so grateful that the manager's authority with Pat, so far anyway, has sent a signal to the other DJs not to intentionally "slip up" on profanity on their shows. But how long will that last?

One step we are taking is to publicly emphasize how we unconditionally support the manager.

Not that we are always pleased with our manager! Even in this case, it is possible the manager overstepped station policy, and we communicated this in no uncertain terms, and luckily that is all confidential employer-employee stuff. Any doubts about our support for the manager could threaten the lines of authority which enable the manager to keep the station safe, and we sure as hell can't afford a FCC fine right now.

A recent problem is the proposal to replace Counterspin with Mainstreet Headlines. I think we generally favor the latter because it meets our service requirements better and doesn't violate anything else in our mission.

We don't usually get involved with programming decisions. Unfortunately this one is stirring things up too much. After several people reported harassment on the volunteer mailing list, we made the difficult decision to disallow postings on the subject for now -- they are only polarizing people -- and step in to handle this decision before the organizational price gets too high.

Role: Manager, Back Story


Nonviolent Strategy Tools, George Lakey & Training for Change (other good group tools and activities there as well)

"Grassroots and NonProfit Leadership: A Guide for Organizations in Changing Times" by Berit Lakey, Janice Robinson, George Lakey, Rod Napier is an excellent book applicable to radio stations, typical problems, and many solutions.

Gene Sharp describes the theory and framework for nonviolent struggle in many of his works, and it is some of the most thorough work I've seen for assessing and re-assessing situations, intelligently targeting strategies and tactics, and of course suggesting 198 possible tactics. "From Dictatorship to Democracy" (Sharp is usually writing about country-level struggles) is on line at

What makes authoritarians and their followers tick, and what shifts that? Bob Altemeyer's book "The Authoritarians", available both on line and on paper:

It's hard to recommend a specific George Lakoff reference (framing and how to shift it).

Some conservatives are ideologues and you're not going to sway
 them. But most conservatives are nice people. What you want to do is
 activate their nurturing model, engage their empathy. Ask them who
 they care about, what they care about, and why. Find out where their
 empathy lies. Connect with the part of them that shares your values,
 and get that to spread to other issues.

The most recent Alternative Radio featuring Lakoff is good too.

"Come Hell or High Water: A Handbook on Collective Process Gone Awry" from AK Press. Although this book is about fully-participatory democracy in groups, many of the lessons and things to watch out for apply more

A TON of bite-size information and theory about conflicts of various kinds, large and small:

Many of the dynamics surrounding whistleblowers also happen around grassroots radio disputes. Brian Martin is one author in the area and his books can often be downloaded:
The "Suppression of Dissent" web site is even more applicable: particularly Suppression of dissent: what it is and what to do about it

Conflict Mediation involves a neutral third party helping people in conflict create a mutually-acceptable outcome. Lawyers and judges who practice mediation may not be your best bet. Many locales and regions have mediation groups, resources, and sometimes centers. Stay away from the ones mediating lawsuits unless that's what you need.
is one of many mediation organizations.